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Junius Paul - Ism Music Album Reviews

The Chicago bassist’s solo debut—featuring guests including Makaya McCraven, Isaiah Spencer, and Tomeka Reid—ranges widely, from free jazz to post-bop to meditative tone poems.

Like the mighty jazz bassists that preceded him (Jimmy Garrison, Ron Carter, Peter Kowald, and Buster Williams immediately spring to mind), Junius Paul often makes himself felt before he’s actually heard. That’s him, buoyant and deep, shadowing Makaya McCraven, the perfect complement to the drummer’s rhythms—that is, when he’s not bending, wobbling, and prodding McCraven and group into new terrain. Paul also supports the likes of reedman Ernest Dawkins, Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, where his bass work is as sturdy, supportive, and invisible as rebar. So when the Chicago musician steps to the fore on his massive, sprawling debut, Ism, it’s a thrill to feel and hear every contour, throb, and spontaneous spark across two pieces of wax.


Not just an opener, “You Are Free to Choose” serves as a mission statement from Paul and his assembled cohorts, some 14 in all; they leave no rhythmic idea unturned. The chase is everything. The frenetic, skittering rhythms suggest the volatile mix to follow, fully embracing that freedom to not choose, roving from free jazz to post-bop, meditative tone poems to hip-hop thumps (or “badoop” as McCraven put it recently, describing his bandmate’s sound). Recorded over a four-year span in various clubs and studios throughout Chicago, Ism reflects its many homes and the many sounds that feed into the music of the Windy City. Which might sound restless, except Paul exudes such confidence that no matter the session, his bass makes it all hang together.

“Bow Hit,” which follows, features Paul’s droning bow work, Isaiah Spencer’s rumbling kit, high tones from Jim Baker’s Arp, and a contemplative solo from saxophonist Rajiv Halim. It approaches stillness only to swan dive into “Baker’s Dozen,” a slippery mix of avant-jazz shot through with head-knocking drums and G-funk frequencies. “The One Who Endures” flips back into charging hard bop, Paul’s upright a flurry of quick-fingered runs.

It all leads to “Spocky Chainsey Has Re-Emerged,” a sidelong exploration from a quartet that toggles from modal jazz to fusion, like Bitches Brew set to boil rather than low simmer. About 13 minutes in, Paul lowers the temperature and space opens up for organ and trumpet to cool out. Just when you think it might drift off, turbulence enters, a Sun Ra-like dissonance curls around the edges, and Paul guides the band back up to speed again.

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“Paris” is the other expansive piece, this time featuring a trio—one of three pieces where Paul is back in step with McCraven. The rhythm section slowly winds around trumpeter Marquis Hill’s unhurried lines, but there’s a tactile thrill when Paul’s stalwart bass coheres into a hummable figure and locks in. McCraven’s snare cracks and the piece achieves liftoff, the three moving at an inspired pace. Yet there’s still another point in the piece when Paul’s bass runs quicken again, somehow finding another plane for everyone else to vibrate on.

The last side of the album finds Paul in a more ruminative mode. His strings are in sweet conversation with cellist Tomeka Reid on “Fred Anderson and a Half,” as they pay tribute to the late tenor saxophonist, a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and owner of the Velvet Lounge, where Paul honed his chops weekly. It segues into the most hushed piece on the album, “Ma and Dad,” full of the kind of reverentially small sounds that the Art Ensemble of Chicago plied a half century ago. Listen closely and a strange rumble arises. Is it Paul’s bass? No, just a motorcycle engine idling in the distance before roaring away. But it speaks to Paul’s conjured atmosphere that such an intrusion slots into Ism perfectly.


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